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I recently started at a new company and I've developed a good relationship with my team leader who assigns me important tasks because they say no-one else can do them properly. I am the second most senior developer on the team (after the team leader) and we have several junior and intermediate developers. I am also well respected by the more junior members of my team.

I just been given a major project to complete, however, my team leader has suddenly become completely unavailable for an uncertain amount of time. I had a question about the project which only my team leader and the managers know about, so I went to the next person I could, who is one of the managers.

I explained that I needed to know if we were doing <A> or <B> and I was told that they will be the same thing in a month's time. The manager then started talking about <X>, which was unrelated to my question and my problem. I then explained that currently there are very big differences between <A> and <B> which will affect how I work on the project, so I needed to know which one. I was told that <X> is already working and there are no issues with it and that I was overcomplicating it.

If my team leader was available they would understand where I was coming from and give me a simple answer. If I was talking to a peer or a subordinate, I would feel confident that in most cases I could explain the misunderstanding but our management is quite authoritarian and I felt like the manager was annoyed at me for bothering them with something that doesn't make sense. I eventually just agreed that <X> doesn't have a problem because they wouldn't drop it, but I received no help for my problem of <A> or <B>. I still haven't received any useful information.

In the past this manager has been quite receptive and enthusiastic about suggestions I've made to improve all sorts of things but this is the first time I've asked for information that directly affects my work from them.

Now I feel that the manager doesn't respect me or my knowledge and just wants me to "get it done and stop bothering them". No matter how many times I tried to directly explain that <X> had nothing to do with my problem which was actually <A> and <B> the manager didn't understand. How can I correct their initial misunderstanding and get them to give me information to help me complete the project which is very important to them?

  • So your team leader cannot be reached, even by email? – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 14 '17 at 9:21
  • @VietnhiPhuvan At the moment my team leader is totally incommunicado. – CJ Dennis Jan 14 '17 at 9:22
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    @Erik How do I make it go better next time? They might still be stuck on the wrong idea. – CJ Dennis Jan 14 '17 at 10:22
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    I'm hoping someone with more experience working with authoritarian managers answers that, because I don't work with those... – Erik Jan 14 '17 at 10:28
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    There seem to be two choices here: Start working (on either <A> or <B>), or defer the decision. I don't think we can tell you which one works out better. If your decision is easy to revert, starting work on either would usually be better, because you only lose progress if you've picked the wrong approach. If you defer the decision, you always lose progress until your team leader is able to decide for you. – Jonny Best Jan 14 '17 at 13:32
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Ah, the seminal problem of my boss (or in this case my boss’s boss) doesn’t understand me. Sorry to break it to you, but if your manager doesn’t understand that <A> or <B> is different from <X> either (1) you have failed to communicate your issue in a way that he can understand or (2) your manager did communicate an answer to your issue and you were not listening.

Step 1 is always to replay (as best as you can) what your boss’s boss said. And try ot understand why he might have thought and said what he did: are <A> and <B> in any way related to <X>? Will doing <A> or <B> have any potential impact or disruption of <X>? Why is he or she mentioning <X>? We sometimes get caught up in our own issues to the point where we can’t recognize that the other person might also have a point that we’re missing. When replaying these conversations, I always try to replay it a second time with the assumption that I misunderstood him or her, and not the other way around.

Step 2 is harder because it means that you have to hone your communication skills and represent your question in a way that your boss’s boss understands. You should start with the assumption that he or she is busy and that you have a limited amount of time (less than two minutes, or four sentences) to narrow your question so that he or she can make a decision in terms that he or she is comfortable with. This requires preparation and forethought. Write down what you plan to say and how you plan to present the question. And then you can practice your question with someone who has 0 background of what you are working on to make sure he or she understands. If your practice buddy, with no background on <A>, <B> or <X> understands, chances are your boss’s boss will, too. Now when you represent the issue to your boss’s boss, be brief, be direct and lead with:

Do you have two minutes to discuss this priority issue that my team and I are working on? I appreciate you speaking to me about it earlier, but I wanted to touch base with you to make certain I was on the right track given how high of a priority this was.

But the key thing to remember is that your boss’s boss, just like, you, has a set of priorities he or she is working on and engaged in. In other words, he or she is coming into this conversation cold with little to no context regarding <A> or <B> or the project that you are working on. What might be your most pressing issue is not necessarily what he or she considers most pressing or most visible. Show that you value his or her time, and that feeling will be reciprocated.

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If I was in your shoes, I would do the following:

A quick assessment of the communication as it happened, including asking myself some key questions. - Where was he coming from? - Does his perspective make sense? - How? How might he be understanding the situation? - What do I sense is the misunderstanding present? - What is the impact of this misunderstanding?

If that does not resolve the matter on its own, I would consider a follow up communication, but I would do it with the following structure...

Initiate Communication

  • I would like to bring something to your attention.

Empathize/Make sure they know you heard their position

  • When we talked last, what I got from it was ( insert your best understanding of their position ) . (( Empathy/Get them first ))

Express your concern/ OWN it

  • I am concerned about x because I am imagining y. Does this seem important to you?

Get Consent about whether they want to look at it

  • ( If so, would you like to clarify this? )

Understand THEM / take action

  • ( If not, great. My sense is that you would like me to z, is that right? )

Why this approach:

It takes into account the following principles.

  • Focus NOT on being understood, but on understanding them and what they want/expect from me.
  • Drops all assumptions and replaces with my sense ( diffuses any position keen to debate / argument / conflict )
  • Owns my experience ( From 'they don't understand me to "I am imagining they don't understand me" for example )
  • Adds consent to each step of the matter ( Do they WANT to look at this? They choose whether to look at each step )

The essence of this is that

  • it voices your perspective and concerns
  • it voices what you sense to be true about them,
  • it voices the potential impact of your concerns if you are right

So your position is noted. If it turns out that you were right to be concerned later, you are more likely to be recognized for that gift because it was delivered in a way that was digestable.

  • It gives them the opportunity to hear you, clearly and concisely, without needing to figure it out if that is not a priority to them.

Once they assess their position about what you are saying, you simply

  • Focus on understanding THEM and THIER position and orient accordingly.

Even if they are making a bad choice, your position is spoken and heard, and you are an extension of their will. They have you make the wrong choice, you understand it, express yourself without triggering a debate, they feel the sanity of knowing they are in control of the system and its direction in relation to you... you implement on their will.

One possible example of why this approach may work better then others:

What if you were right, but they are privately managing an investor fallout, and they need to focus on that, and so they hear your position, blow you off, save the investor capital, focus on what they need to save the company, later realize you were right, have you do the work over correctly, but they did not have to derail their attention where they saw it fit. They save the company, you get the credit for your insight, and your work starts over correctly. They need to choose where their attention goes, not you, but your voice can be heard if you are not insisting you are correct or assuming you know what they should be attending to, without generating much dissonance at all, if any.

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